Is religion inherently violent?

By Aslam Kakar, Editor

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Religious terrorism hits the headlines every now and then. Although religious violence has historical roots, it has become more prominent in the past few decades. The Oklahoma City bombing and anti-abortion clinic attacks by Christian extremist groups in the U.S., the attack on World Trade Center by al-Qaeda and lately ISIS’s violence in Iraq and Syria are just a few examples. The most critical question raised in studies on religious terrorism is about the motivation behind violence. Is violence a purely religious act, or there are other motivations for which religion is used? Juergensmeyer’s book Terror in the Mind of God is an attempt to answer this question. The author explores the use of violence by marginal groups within five major religious traditions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism. Juergensmeyer also studies the mind of advocates of violence “to understand them and their world views well enough to know how they and their supporters can morally justify what they have done” (Juergensmeyer 2001, 7).

The answer to the question about the sole motivation behind violence is challenging because it is difficult to demarcate religion from other variables. Most Muslims, for instance, believe that Islam is a religion of peace and has nothing to do with terrorism although some of the most lethal terrorist organizations—Qaeda, Boko Haram and ISIS—commit violence in the name of the same religion. Thus, to say that Islam or any other religion has nothing to do with violence ring alarm bells. Juergensmeyer’s answer to the question of religion and violence is two-fold: religion can be employed for strategic gains but it also has a distinct, internal logic for violence. Juergensmeyer argues one can not overlook the context—“the historical situations, social locations and world views related to violent incidents”— in which religious violence occurs (Juergensmeyer 2001, 10). He contends, “… religion is not innocent. But it does not ordinarily lead to violence. That happens only with the coalescence of a peculiar set of circumstances—political, social and ideological—when religion becomes fused with violent expressions of social aspirations, personal pride and movements for political change” (Juergensmeyer 2001, 10).

However, although religious terrorism may have strategic goals, it is also used as “performance violence” to make symbolic statement(s) (Juergensmeyer 2001, 127). These symbolic statements “are intended to illustrate or refer to something beyond their immediate target: a grander conquest, for instance, or a struggle more awesome than meets the eye” (Juergensmeyer 2001, 125). This leads the author to the idea of “cosmic war” and transcendent conflict. One can term this as an eschatological fight for the triumph of good over evil. This is done by what Juergensmeyer calls “satanization,” a process through which a group constructs an enemy as an evil (Juergensmeyer 2001, 186-88). The demonizing and annihilation of the enemy thus becomes a moral responsibility and solution to worldly ills of the group. This attracts the frustrated youth to join the rank and file because it gives them a sense of purpose, power and validation. This also echoes the dominant theme of dispossessed youth and their inclination to join violent mass movements in Hoffer’s book, The True Believer.

Thus the activists of religious violence, besides immediate goals, are motivated by “larger than life” images of cosmic war, “which evoke great battles of the legendary past, and relate to metaphysical conflicts between good and evil” (Juergensmeyer 2001, 149). About the relationship violence has with religion and politics, Juergensmeyer argues, “what makes religious violence particularly savage and relentless is that its perpetrators have placed such religious images of divine struggle—cosmic war—in the service of worldly political battles. For this reason, acts of religious terror serve not only as tactics in a political strategy but also as evocations of a much larger spiritual confrontation” (Juergensmeyer 2001, 149, 150). The book, however, does not seem to answer the question as to what wealthy men like Osama bin Laden had to do with religious violence? It also does not account for the motivation of the micro-level men and women in joining terrorist organizations, as the book focuses solely on the macro-level leadership. Juergensmeyer’s analysis, that religion does act as a cause of violence for spiritual confrontation, is compelling, however, it also depends on how one interprets religion and its purpose in life. Not all forms of religion are violent.

About Author: The author is Editor of the Borderless and Ph.D. student at the Division of Global Affairs.